Wanted: one party locksmith

The Guardian‘s splash about the first meeting of the party’s newly elected Federal Executive (FE) makes for rather generous coverage of a completely unexceptional decision by the FE.

That the first meeting of the newly elected committee, faced with deciding what motion to put to the Spring Conferences, goes for saying that the party should fight the next general election as an independent party is about as unsurprising an outcome as you could expect. But if The Guardian wants to give heavy coverage to the Lib Dems and Conservatives not being one and the same, that’s not exactly the worst the paper could do.

However, of more significance is what the Federal Executive didn’t really consider, which is the state of the party’s triple lock mechanism. It is generally considered to have worked well last May in making sure that the party was widely involved in the decision-making process and in strengthening the hands of the party’s negotiators. Indeed, many people in the media and other parties who started off mocking the number of party meetings ended up admiring the system, especially Labour and Conservative MPs who compared the involvement of Lib Dem MPs in decision-making with their own lack of a voice in their parties.

Yet it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that the triple lock did its job and can be put back on the shelf ready to use next time around. That’s because it was originally designed for a very different job – namely fears that Paddy Ashdown would try to merge the Lib Dems with Labour, in the middle of Parliament in which Labour had an overall majority. Mid-Parliament and majority government is a very different scenario from immediately after an election and a hung Parliament.

As a result, the triple lock has some very particular characteristics. Its final stage (a ballot of all party members) is very unlikely to be practical in the timescales of post-election talks. Its first stage involves the party’s Federal Executive, but not the Federal Policy Committee – even though as we saw in May post-election talks are overwhelmingly about policy. Its first stage also involves MPs but not peers. That made more sense in the late 1990s, with an unelected house. But imagine the situation after a 2015 election: there are former Lib Dem ministers in the Lords and Lib Dems elected for the first time in public elections to the Lords. The triple lock says: you don’t really fit with what we’re going to do. As with last year, there may be a meeting and vote amongst the Lords, but what if it doesn’t mirror the views of MPs?

It’s taking an unnecessary gamble to stick with a system that was designed for a different purpose, does not properly involve the party’s policymakers and does not account for changes in the Upper House. Despite working well last year it is all too easy to imagine scenarios in which, when put to use once again in a situation for which it was not designed, it fails.

Whether it comes from the Federal Executive or from an amendment at conference, the sensible course is to amend the triple lock now, in good time well clear of an election.

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